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May 25, 2000

The Human Element

Twelve new rabbis join the Conservative ranks as UJ holds its second ordination

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/the_human_element_20000526

Ten years ago, Tracee Rosen was a banker. Rick Flom was practicing law, and Carla Howard was making documentary videos. Amy Bolton was studying neuropsychology at Haverford College. John Crites-Borak wasn't Jewish. Mark Borovitz had just completed his parole.

Last Tuesday, they all became Conservative rabbis.

The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ) ordained 12 candidates at Sinai Temple on May 16, its second class of rabbis. At least five of the newly minted rabbis are age 40 or older.The warm, emotional ceremony turned Sinai's austere sanctuary into a large living room filled with an extended family of local Conservative leadership celebrating a simcha together. All eight of last year's ordainees were present to cheer on this year's class.

Most of the speeches made during the evening focused on the rabbi as a human being like any other, with strengths and flaws. In his charge to the new rabbis, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Ziegler School's dean, cited the passage in Torah that bars anyone with a physical blemish from serving as a priest in the tabernacle. Today, Artson said, he interprets the Torah's call for perfection in Judaism's kohanim not as a need for a rabbi to be a perfect human being but to serve God with "the wholeness that comes from imperfection."

"Many a new rabbi has asked, 'Am I pure enough? Am I holy enough?' " Artson said. "In real life, you can't let deficiencies keep you from bold leadership... Bring your entire being to the service of God and your fellow creatures. Leave no part of yourself outside. Leave no piece of yourself invisible. Teach congregations not to wait for perfection."

Rabbi Robert Wexler, UJ's president, quoting Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, warned the new rabbis "against ever seeing congregants as 'them'; it's necessary to be part of a 'we.'"

Keynote speaker Susannah Heschel, director of Dartmouth College's Jewish studies program and author or editor of several books, similarly reminded the ordainees of their responsibility to maintain empathy with congregants. She also charged them to keep up with new currents in Conservative Jewish life such as feminism, inclusion of gaymen and lesbians, and increased attention to social activism. "Teach your congregants that their own humanity is at stake when there is injustice in the world," she said.

Nor were the short speeches made by rabbinic colleagues and UJ faculty members as they presented the 12 candidates pro forma recitations of a student's qualifications, but the loving tributes of mentors who in some cases took on the coloration of a parent or sibling. Daniel Mehlman was presented by the rabbi who officiated at his bar mitzvah in Argentina. Two other candidates were sponsored by members of the first graduating class.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein presented Crites-Borak, whom she has known since he studied for conversion to Judaism in 1992. "There are some people born to and for a calling, and John is one," she said. "He is a Jew and a rabbi who makes me proud to be a Jew and a rabbi."The ceremony also included an affectionate tribute to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who has been promoted to Distinguished Professor after almost 30 years at UJ.At the reception after the ceremony, well-wishers eddied around the beaming new rabbis holding their portfolio-sized certificates. They greeted friends; admired the 3 1/2-month-old daughter of Amy Bolton and her husband, Scott, who was also ordained May 16; inquired about career plans for the new rabbis who didn't list them in the program.

The Boltons, Hal Greenwald, and Jay Strear will be heading for jobs in the Detroit area. David Stein has been named campus rabbi at the Solomon Schechter school in Dallas (a position once held by Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Ed Feinstein). David Cantor will return to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to become assistant rabbi at the temple in which he grew up.

Of the older students, several who are staying in Southern California are still weighing options, while Rosen will join the rabbinic staff at Valley Beth Shalom and Borovitz, a recovered substance abuser, will continue as spiritual leader of Gateways Beit T'Shuvah, a congregation with outreach to those in recovery from addiction. Flom will move cross-country to helm a small congregation in Taunton, Mass.

The new rabbis, especially those entering or continuing in congregational life, have chosen a tough field, requiring long hours, constant continued study, and fortitude in the dealing with students, congregants, and others who may lack their spiritual and ritual commitment. "I wish all of you a life of optimism," said Rabbi William Lebeau, vice chancellor for rabbinic development at Jewish Theological Seminary, who was awarded UJ's Simon Greenberg Award for Distinguished Rabbinic Leadership.

But, every speaker strongly suggested, all their efforts will be worthwhile. "There will be moments when the Shechinah will smile on you, when you will experience ordination again," said Heschel, who grew up surrounded by rabbis as the daughter of the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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